Arturo Alvarez

#NYCvCHI Numbers and Words: Eastern Conference contenders clash in the Bronx


Matchup Chicago Fire (11-3-5, 38 pts.) at New York City FC (10-6-4, 34 pts.)
Date Saturday, July 22 • 1:00 p.m. CT
Location Bronx, N.Y. • Yankee Stadium
TV CSN Chicago Plus
Spanish Radio Univision América 1200 (WRTO)

At long last, the Chicago Fire resume their 2017 MLS campaign on Saturday afternoon with a trip to Yankee Stadium to take on fellow Eastern Conference contenders New York City FC (1 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago Plus). Saturday's matchup is the first between these sides this season, and one that looks pivotal in the race to finish atop the conference standings. City enters the weekend having drawn 2-2 with Toronto FC on Wednesday night, after a stoppage time penalty kick finish swiped two points from head coach Patrick Vieira's men. Now, ahead of this weekend's Eastern Conference showdown, here are a few key facts, faces and figures to keep in mind:

Key number: 17

The Fire will take the field on Saturday for the first time since their 2-2 draw at Portland back on July 5, a span of 17 days coinciding with the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. Head coach Veljko Paunovic's men entered the break riding an 11-match unbeaten streak and resting comfortably atop the Eastern Conference and Supporters Shield Standings. After the brief hiatus and some time away, the Fire's ability to pick up right where they left off from a momentum standpoint will be crucial with three huge points on the line. City are as talented and as ambitious as the Men In Red this season, and this result -- along with NYCFC's return trip to Chicago on Sept. 30 -- will be a factor in how the final regular standings shake out come October.

Matchup to watch: Bastian Schweinsteiger vs. Maxi Moralez

Within the narrow confines of the Yankee Stadium pitch, look for this match to hinge on the midfield man that does the best job of clogging things up defensively and springing his teammates back into the attack. Schweinsteiger -- who hasn't played since coming off with an injury on July 1 but has featured fully in training this week -- figures to slot into his deep-lying role in the midfield and between the centerbacks to help control the pace of the game and find open spaces for his teammates to move along the touchlines. Across from him, the Finnish international Alex Ring -- one of the most underrated performers in MLS since arriving in February -- will have his eyes on feeding danger creators Maxi Moralez, Jack Harrison and David Villa in the City attacking third.

Fire in the Goal

Although there are some new faces in the 2017 Chicago Fire attack, the club's returners from last season will be looking to get the best of their former teammate in goal when Sean Johnson takes his spot in net Saturday at Yankee Stadium. After spending his first seven MLS campaigns with the Men In Red, Johnson found a new home in the Bronx during the offseason and has been in fine form, with a 9-5-4 record and a 1.22 goals against average in 18 starts. Just returned from a USMNT call-up for the Gold Cup group stage, Johnson will go head-to-head with the man with whom he shared time in 2016, Matt Lampson. The Fire goalkeeper has been stellar since taking over the starting job in May, conceding only seven goals during the current 11-game unbeaten run to lower his MLS-best GAA to 0.64.

Rising Stars

Chicago's Veljko Paunovic and NYCFC's Patrick Vieira made their MLS and senior head coaching debuts against one another back on March 6, 2016, a wild 4-3 season-opening affair at Toyota Park won by NYCFC. In the ensuing year and a half, both bosses have taken their sides to the heights of the Eastern Conference and become highly regarded young coaches for their tactical prowess and overall influence on their clubs. Last year, they followed the seven-goal affair with a scoreless draw at Yankee Stadium in April, followed by a lopsided 4-1 home win for NYCFC in September. Now that both are firmly in control of their sides' styles of play, it should be fun to see who gains the upperhand come Saturday. 

One Big Question: Which of the league's top two scorers makes the bigger impact?

Saturday's match boasts serious firepower on both sides, as MLS Golden Boot leader Nemanja Nikolic and reigning MLS MVP David Villa lead their team's respective attacking lines. Nikolic's 16 goals have him on pace to shake up the league's all-time scoring charts, while Villa will look to continue closing the Golden Boot gap after netting his 13th of the season against Toronto on Wednesday. Hear Nikolic's thoughts on squaring off against Villa here.

Quote of the Week:

"I know that they hate, but I like."

That's Nikolic on how his game tends to affect defenders he matches up against in the league's latest MLS Insider piece. Give it a watch. It's well worth your time.

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